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Lack of Waste Infrastructure Could Leave UK Open to 'Potential Disaster Scenario' Post-Brexit

The realities of a hard Brexit are beginning to come to fruition. Immigration issues notwithstanding, the UK stands to face significant challenges in meeting its Paris commitments and upholding its pledge to maintain high environmental standards after its separation from the EU.

Waste handling capacity, in particular, has been flagged as problematic, further underscored by a new report from waste management firm Suez. According to initial findings from the firm’s Mind the Gap 2017 – 2030 report, the UK’s already taxed waste treatment capacities are likely to worsen post-Brexit, with standard European processing practices presenting new complications, such as increased export tariffs and border restrictions.

“Our projections show that there is a serious long-term shortfall in the UK’s vital waste management infrastructure and a potential disaster scenario looming in the event of a hard Brexit,” said David Palmer-Jones, CEO of Suez, in a statement.

“Hard borders, import tariffs and a weakening Sterling will make waste exports to Europe, which the UK continues to rely upon, financially unviable. Instead, the waste we currently export in the absence of sufficient domestic energy-from-waste capacity, will be re-shored into remaining, expensive, UK landfill — at a high cost to British businesses, taxpayers and the environment.”

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Currently, more than three million tons of waste are exported annually to Europe for treatment. This is, in large part, due to a lack of energy-from-waste (EfW)power plants, which are increasingly replacing landfills as the preferred method of treating non-recyclable residual waste.

Suez’s projections indicate a current national shortfall of around 14 million tons of domestic treatment capacity. This gap is expected to reduce to eight million tons by 2022 and three million tons by 2027 as facilities are built and recycling increases. The three-million-ton shortage could be handled by 20 average-sized EfW plants, though the costs would be significant, ringing in around £2 billion.

The report, which will be formally published in September, also notes that the long construction timeframe of the required EfW sites could mean that the majority of the re-shored waste originally sent abroad over the next decade would end up in landfill sites. This would have considerable consequences for businesses and taxpayers, who would likely have to bear the burden of higher disposal costs brought on by higher rates of landfill tax and greater transportation distances across the UK for disposal.

But it’s not all bad news. There are signs of new circular waste solutions taking shape that could help soften the blow of Brexit.

The UK recently announced the opening of a new battery recycling facility with the capacity to process up to 20,000 tons of batteries a year, which exceeds the country’s current battery waste. The move, orchestrated by resource efficiency specialist Ecosurety and Belmont Trading, will allow around 80 percent of the UK’s batteries to be recycled in-country and could help significantly reduce the UK’s aste export bill and reduce the environmental impacts of exporting tens of thousands of tons of potentially hazardous waste across to Europe each year. The remaining 15 – 20 percent will be required to be exported until another viable solution is found. The facility is slated to open in November 2017.

“This is proof that the UK waste and recycling industry can find its own innovative solutions to our waste resourcing issues through partnership working,” said Damian Lambkin, Head of Innovation at Ecosurety.


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